Seeking to expand its global footprint beyond its cloistered headquarters next to a zoo on the outskirts of Zurich, football’s governing body FIFA is investigating the feasibility of moving its financial engine, the business transaction that generates billions of dollars in revenue for the organization, in the United States.
The eventual move will be determined by technical factors, including the suitability of locations on both coasts, the ease of obtaining work visas for overseas staff members and tax rules, according to an official with knowledge. direct discussions who refused to speak publicly because a decision had not yet been made. The operations involved represent a vital part of FIFA’s business: they oversee the sale of FIFA’s sponsors and broadcast rights, which represent some of the most lucrative properties in world sport.
Since Gianni Infantino’s election as President in 2016, FIFA has sought to expand its footprint beyond its glass and steel headquarters east of Zurich. It has already opened an office in Paris, where most of its employees involved in development and relations with its 211 member associations will eventually be based.
Officials hope that relocating its business operations to a major US city will help FIFA attract and retain key staff, as its current headquarters prove to be a barrier to attracting talent. Local regulations require FIFA to employ a fixed number of Swiss staff.
FIFA’s interest in decoupling from Zurich is also – in part – an effort to improve its reputation and loosen its ties with its recent and turbulent past in Switzerland, the country that has hosted it since 1932.
Several members of the FIFA board of directors were arrested in Zurich in 2015 as part of a major US Department of Justice investigation that revealed corrupt practices dating back at least two decades. This scandal resulted in the downfall of longtime FIFA president Sepp Blatter and most of the organization’s top executives.
A move to the United States would have been unthinkable for FIFA in the aftermath of the arrests, as it could have put the organization’s officials, operations and financial accounts within the reach of US authorities. (Some former FIFA executives, perhaps fearing arrest, have not set foot in North America since the scandal.) But now, staying in Switzerland has its own issues.
Infantino, who replaced Blatter as FIFA president a year after the raids, has been the subject of a years-long investigation into his relationship with Michael Lauber, Switzerland’s former attorney general. Lauber, who was expelled after revelations that he had private meetings with Infantino, was responsible for Swiss investigations stemming from the 2015 US indictment. Those investigations led to few charges.
The failure of the Swiss authorities to act on the corruption case has frustrated elements of the current FIFA management, who have privately expressed their disbelief at the inaction given the amount of evidence obtained during the searches of the headquarters. of FIFA. At the same time, the investigation into Infantino sparked a furious reaction, with the FIFA deputy general secretary calling it “a little grotesque and unfair”.
FIFA’s efforts to move some of its operations away from Zurich are seen by insiders as necessary steps for an organization looking to move beyond decades-old ways of working. The decision to move to Paris, for example, has given officials in its development departments and member associations easier access to Africa, a region over which FIFA has largely assumed full control after another corruption scandal. involving the president of the continent’s regional governing body.
“Our goal of making football truly global also means that FIFA itself needs to have a more balanced and global organization,” Infantino said when the Paris office opened in June.
FIFA was established in Paris in 1904 but moved to Zurich in 1932 due to Switzerland’s location at the center of Europe, its political neutrality and because “it was accessible by train”, according to a timeline. on the FIFA website. In 2007, FIFA moved to its current headquarters on a hill overlooking Zurich. The building, known as FIFA House, cost more than $ 200 million and has several underground levels, including the soundproof marble-floored hall where its board of directors meets.
FIFA officials remain undecided as to which presence the organization would retain in Switzerland, which – thanks to light government oversight and friendly tax arrangements – has become the preferred location for international sports federations. Lausanne, seat of the International Olympic Committee, actively recruits such organizations and has proclaimed itself “the Silicon Valley of sport”.
Lobbying for such big changes is emblematic of FIFA under Infantino. A Swiss national, he tried to introduce major changes in the way FIFA and football work, with mixed results. It expanded the World Cup, an event responsible for more than 90 percent of FIFA’s revenue, to 48 teams on the current 32-nation format. But its efforts to impose further innovations and increase FIFA’s influence in club football have often failed, and its current drive to move the World Cup from a quadrennial event to one every two years threatens a major fight with European football officials and even the International Olympic Committee.
Relocating to the United States would provide FIFA with the opportunity to expand its business activities in a country that its officials say has yet to embrace football to a level commensurate with the place of sport in other parts of the world. world. The timing would also allow FIFA to exercise greater control over preparations for the 2026 World Cup, the first edition of the expanded tournament; this tournament will be co-hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada.
But being closer to Wall Street and big American companies, some senior FIFA officials say, would also offer the possibility of dramatically increasing revenues as well as finding partners to fund new events and invest in the growing popularity of football. feminine.
As well as exploiting the potential business opportunities available in the world’s largest economy, being based in the United States would also give FIFA another chance to show that it has emerged from its scandal-ridden past.
FIFA has attempted in recent years to reestablish relations with the US government, and officials have been in regular contact with the Department of Justice, which has continued its investigation into corruption in world football. Some of the fruits of this improved relationship came to light last month when FIFA and its two regional confederations most involved in the 2015 scandal were allowed to receive more than $ 200 million clawed back from businesses and individuals. The Justice Department said the money should be administered through FIFA.